A Gentleman

“Grandfather, Great Spirit,

Once more behold me on earth and lean to hear my feeble voice.”

~Black Elk

It wasn’t a fancy car but it was reliable. My Grandfather drove an aging Valiant Wayfarer utility wagon. This was in keeping with his humble style. A simple man, my grandfather had his own brand of street style. An aura of authenticity hovered over him. I imagine that it pleased him to note that the Valiant was manufactured in Australia.

A plaid wool blanket was folded across the Valiant’s back seat. This gentle touch offered soft comfort for a snuffling Boxer named Mitzi. In the winter months it provided warmth from the chill. Along the road of life, Mitzi and Grandfather traveled as true companions.

I recall Grandfather tidy in a crisp white shirt, sleeves rolled to the forearm. Look again and you’d glimpse a tattoo; the lower half of a mermaid’s fin. Overtop of his shirt, he wore leather- tabbed suspenders. They attached to buttons hidden under the waistband of his pressed woolen pants. His low boots appeared oiled. The leather had the sheen of rubbed chestnuts. A copper bracelet encircled his right wrist. He believed that the power of this element bewitched and tamed the demon called arthritis.

Understand, my grandfather needed the full use of his hands. They were his tools. An oiler by trade, he knew the most intimate parts of a boiler’s engine. His intuition understood every hiss, puff, and pause of machinery. His strong hands worked the land. Muscled arms heaved soil, necessary to build shelter for family. Born on the land, he was a descendent of carters and farmers.

My grandfather was a gentleman in more ways than one. A trademark felt fedora graced his head. This was the only fashionable touch of formal style he held to. It recalled a time of common etiquette and classy formality. He practiced simple courtesies such as opening doors for women. When a lady entered the room, he stood and removed his hat.

When I learned to drive a car, we would meet in the country. Grandfather had a precious sister that he visited each week. It was their ritual yet they made room for me.

Together we’d cruise in the Valiant. His favourite spot was a nearby provincial park. Gravel crunched under tires as the car wound along the rough roads. Finally, Grandfather would park the Valiant in a clearing. “Time for some fresh air,” he’d say. As we walked into the forest, my grandfather would pause to point out the trees.

“That’s a cypress. Notice the small, woody cones,” or whisper, “Look up. Find the tallest tree. Over there.” He’d stand stone still while my eyes followed skyward from the point of his finger. “There’s an eagle’s nest in that fir tree.”

When our time together ended, grandfather walked to my parent’s car and opened the driver’s door. He waited as I settled behind the wheel.

“Drive carefully,” he’d caution. “I’ll go on ahead. Follow me along the highway. I’ll lead you back to the turn off and then be on my way home.”

The dark two- lane highway was dangerous to drive. Evergreens rustled and swayed. Sometimes, I’d lag behind in speed and when that happened, he’d pull over to the shoulder of the road and wait for my car to catch up.

Up ahead, I’d see my grandfather’s car stopped and waiting. The car’s lights shone upon the Valiant. A man wearing a fedora stood tall. As I passed by, my grandfather doffed his fedora. It was our signal. We could both carry on into the night and find our way home.

A staunch fighter for worker’s rights and health care for all, he believed in bettering community. As a younger man, he rode the train from Alberta to the West Coast. At the city’s terminal station, he stood strong with the other unemployed and desperate men. Beat up and ordered to leave town, the men stood stronger together. Those were the meanest years of the Great Depression. He took whatever work he could find.

A loyalty to Queen and a new country shaped his nationalist spirit. One World War had been enough for his scarred body and gentle mind. In search of family and the opportunity to own land, he emigrated from England to Canada. The familiar grassy hillsides and vast farmlands would become a memory. His tender heart coveted memories of childhood and family left.

It was the tilt of his head that I recall. The way in which it tipped ever so slightly left. It was as if he had purposely paused a beat in time or stalled the moment. I sensed he felt the need to fully appreciate whatever was before him. Perhaps he knew too well how quickly moments vanish. A shy smile and twinkling eyes lent him humble, boyish charm.

This unassuming man possessed a gentle spirit and a watchful eye. At certain times in our life, he suddenly appeared. I believe he sensed the need to connect and guide. In those moments we exchanged few words. It wasn’t necessary. He was loyal and protective.

To me, he was known as grandfather. In his presence I felt the buzz from the purest magic, sent forth by an unseen hand. The magic came from a place beyond reason and beyond us. It felt real and true. In youth, I did not appreciate the gifts he gave me. They weren’t material in form, yet they were significant. These invisible gifts shaped me into the woman I have become. When I forget who I am, I close my eyes and remember.

Occasionally I drive along the stretch of highway that we used to travel. Whenever I do, I think of him. The winding road is now straight. Two lanes of highway became four. The ancient trees that rustled in the darkness are gone, long ago clear-cut. Behold an expansive housing development that continues for miles. Now, endless light shines from a stretch of apartment windows, illuminates the darkness.

Up ahead I see him. He is patiently waiting. Passing by, he tips his hat.

We wonder if the smallest actions matter. They do.

 

 

 

 

 

The Cradle

Annie Sloan~ Pure White Chalk Paint
Annie Sloan~ Pure White Chalk Paint
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Cece Caldwell~ Santa Fe Turquoise Chalk paint
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Grandpa’s Barn Red paint peeks through the sanded edges of the cradle.
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A coat of Annie Sloan Soft Wax slips over the paint.

Grandpa fashioned the wooden cradle by hand and painted it Barn Red. I remember that afternoon; his hands set the cradle onto the linoleum floor. My small hands reached forth, rocked the cradle. His gentle eyes looked into mine,
“For your doll, rock her to sleep,” he said. He turned to my mother, “I found the pattern in the newspaper.”

I recall the cradle was the colour of a shiny fire truck. Grandpa used any old paint, whatever was on hand. Barn Red sat on top of the work-bench, so Barn Red it was. It wasn’t about beauty or matching decor; it was about finishing up a project. It was about frugality. It was about the hand-made gift, lovingly bestowed on a young child.

Over the years, the doll’s cradle was set aside. My sister and I grew older, chose other forms of play. Somehow the cradle survived several moves, furniture purges, life changes, re dos and pure neglect. Yet, I always knew where to find it.

A few days ago, I thought about the man who fashioned the wood into a doll’s cradle. An urge to sit awhile in his space, hold to a memory over took me.

It was clear how to find him. I searched the cobwebbed crawl space until its rocker came to view,hidden behind the box of Christmas decorations. Slowly, I lifted the cradle. The heaviness of the plywood, the slivered edges, and the pea green paint, pricked for attention. I craved evidence from a moment.

Confidently, my hand gripped the block as I sanded the sharp and dented edges of the cradle. Each layer of paint lifted to show moments from a life. The memories that linger. The horrid pea green paint my mother applied in the mid 70’s, a wish to update and repurpose the cradle for magazine storage. Turquoise, her favourite colour from a 60’s craze to match a floral slip coloured couch, came to the surface. Still I sanded. Where was the red I remembered?

Slowly the layers of paint lifted until patches of Barn Red peeked through, evidence, it was real. I had found the moment so long ago.

This week I restored the old wooden cradle with chalk paint. Pure White by Annie Sloan covered the patches of colour that remain deeply ingrained within the wood. One coat of Santa fe Turquoise by Cece Caldwell, slip covered white. Once slipped in wax, the chippy old cradle’s patina shone restored. My hands reached forth, rocked the cradle.

The cradle’s story lives, once again made real, a grandfather’s simple loving action layered by moments that survive time. Love lives on.

Strength in Struggle

 

 

Charles grew up working class poor. There wasn’t much money. Emigrating from England with parents and two sisters, settling in a small, bleak town. Land was available and his father saw an opportunity, the chance for more. The land harsh, unforgiving; the family scrapped on.

 

People living off the bleak land didn’t have much in the way of extras; if they did, they shared with another. They tirelessly toiled, hand to mouth, along with sent up prayers. Religion played an important role in their lives; they buried sweet babies in the local cemetery.

 

Charles lived respecting the principles of family, stay loyal and inclusive of one another. In later years, he dutifully went to his sister’s side to help a child she bravely and lovingly sheltered from an institution’s walls.

 

There was military service, an opportunity to travel and fight for freedom in the larger world. Charles believed in worker’s rights and fought to unionize railway workers. He stood alongside the great Tommy Douglas, a Canadian leader, carrying forth the hope and promise of social medicare.

 

My grandfather Charles was the quietest and gentlest of men. Through simple acts of kindness, small actions filled with compassion, I watched him and learned how to treat others. He watched over our mother, checking in on her; he loved us. His eyes could see the words we never expressed; his heartbeat strong when we faltered. We knew.

 

A fleeting presence in life, Charles was one of the first social responsibility role models I knew. Stand up, be brave, be kind, are actions he’d support. Sometimes, I imagine him seated at my table. Charles removes his felt fedora and pushes back a strand of hair; his starched white shirt, sleeves rolled to show just a peek of a mermaid’s tail on a forearm, a tattoo from long ago. I smile at the sight of red suspenders, a signature piece he wears clipped to the waistline of pressed khaki pants. Polished boots, the leather gleaming will rest for a spell.

 

We drink a cup of tea; Charles loved tea time. Sugar biscuits, Alice’s favourite, shine waiting on a floral china saucer. He sips and swallows the steeped brew. After a moment or two, I will update him on the comings and goings of life; he will hang his head. When he looks up, his misty eyes will focus upon mine. We know.

 

“It’s okay,” I say.

In that instant we both look away; we know it isn’t.

 

Charles will leave; time is fleeting. Life unrolls. One day I  open a newspaper to read an article about a brave action, a loyal stance; a union’s notice lending support for worker’s rights. I sit within the loving circle of family and friends, safe and valued. I’ve learned to listen to the pause between heartbeats; it is there in that fleeting space where he stands beside me.

We know.

Ancestry

The ad captures my attention~ discover your past, your family’s story.  I begin a quest to discover the history of my family, to know their stories. Regrettably, it never occurred to me to enquire about family when I had the chance.  The relatives I knew kept silences and secret whisperings locked away.

An ancestry membership started me on a journey to discover my past, to discover the men and women whose spirit, hard work, and resilience contributed to my DNA.  Like Alice, I fall down the rabbit hole to emerge in England.  Perhaps this partly explains the allure of floral and chintz.  I cannot pass a vintage thrift shop; I must enter and wander the aisles, linger with the china tea cups and saucers.

Cabbage roses capture my attention. Closing my eyes, woodland hares and rose bushes come into focus.  A calico cat peeks out from behind a stone shed, its stealthy body poised, yellow eyes set upon a morning robin, watching as the bird alights atop the country garden’s netting.  Sweet peas inch up the strings, their perfumed fragrance intoxicating, carried on a gentle breeze.

A paper bag princess, royalty eludes me! Instead, I discover a fascinating world, its simplicity steeped within the doctrines of the Church of England and the land.  I am descended from working class people; tenacious spirits, the farmers and carters beckon me to pause and pay respect.  The great, great, great-granddaughter of hardworking men and women who tilled the beautiful pastoral lands around Shropshire, England.  I wonder if an everlasting thread connects us still. At times, their presence fleeting, their faces mirrored back. Perhaps these old souls smile when they view my humble garden, the sunflower seeds and tightly rounded sweet peas unfurling from seed coat jackets.  Maybe they tenderly gaze back from the faces of those I hold dear.

I stop to study the women’s photographs.  I note beauty and grace, the comforting resemblances to those now here. Standing tall, their proud high foreheads face the camera.  Beautiful dark eyes share the untold stories, the stories of strength and courage.  These courageous women, many sent to work as domestics while still children, some missionaries in China, others interned. Many grieved babies lost to consumption and disease.  Many lost husbands.  All had mouths to feed.  These tireless women, their beautiful, haunted eyes beholden to the emotions, sorrow and joy. Beholden to the land and the seasons.

When in doubt, I imagine these women sending forth heart beats fueled by a fierce strength and unrelenting resilience. Loyal to family, sheltering one another throughout life’s storms, imagining the opportunities, if only wealth or education had happened along their paths.  They forge on, some daring to dream of a future with opportunities and choices for those waiting in line.

Discovering a family’s past, uncovering the mysteries and facts, I set my compass down.  It is an honour to gently sift through the stories, unveil the lives of ones so true.  I take away their gems and stones to polish and shine.  I gather strength from their life stories.  I cherish who I am.